Santa Catalina: Legendary Waters on Panama’s Pacific Coast

If you’re after a quiet retreat where you can enjoy the ocean and immerse yourself in nature, Santa Catalina could be the perfect spot. ©Linda Card

While sitting on a shaded terrace in Santa Catalina, you may hear a voice calling out over a loudspeaker. It’s a vendor selling fresh, organic produce—watermelon, cantaloupe, pineapple, onions, tomatoes—from the back of his truck. Nearby, young surfers carry their boards to the beach for a day on the waves. Fiberglass boats bob in the water, waiting to carry passengers to the nearby islands to snorkel, scuba dive among colorful corals and exotic fish, whale-watch…or catch the marlin and tuna this region is famous for. This little beach town knows how to chill.

This informal scene, a throwback to a simpler time, is the norm in laidback Santa Catalina, on Panama’s Pacific coast. It’s a great spot for expats content with a quiet life, away from the hustle and bustle of big-city living. Adventurous, outdoor types who love being on the water and who treasure the natural world thrive in this unspoiled setting.

One of them is Mario Morel, of Beaumont, Texas, who is building a home with a stunning view out over the ocean. He was stationed in the Panama Canal Zone back in the 1980s and spent as much time as he could surfing the breaks in Santa Catalina with his buddies.

“Santa Catalina will always have a place in my heart,” he says. “The people are wonderful and the surfing is great. It’s a beautiful place, peaceful and relaxed. Now I’m building my home in Santa Catalina, I plan to spend a lot of time here.”

Mario started from scratch to build his dream home. “I had the opportunity to buy the land from a friend, and I jumped on it,” he says. “I had to connect to the power grid and water service, and added back-up systems. My three-story house is about 1,200 square feet and the total cost will be about $220,000. One floor is a studio apartment that I’ll be able to rent out for some income. I’m eager to make my permanent move to my new home.”

Until recently, Santa Catalina was no more than a quiet fishing village. Located on the southern point of land just west of the Azuero Peninsula, its protected waters are rich in marine life. There are two beaches: Playa Santa Catalina at the end of the main road, and Playa Estero at the end of the other road that turns off to the left. All along Panama’s Pacific coast, the sand is a grayish-tan and a wide expanse of shoreline is exposed at low tide. Santa Catalina is no exception, and in some places a water-worn, rocky ledge replaces the sand. Nearby islands host seabirds, turtles, and iguanas, and the warm waters bring humpback whales during calving season (July through October). For generations, the residents of this remote town lived a simple life based on the sea and surrounding farmland.

Back in the 70s, young globetrotters searching for great waves found Santa Catalina and kept it to themselves. For years the town remained a closely guarded secret. But slowly the word got out. Fishing enthusiasts got wind of the abundant game fish in the waters of the many islands close to shore, and they started showing up for offshore charters.

What really put Santa Catalina on the map was the largest of these islands, Isla de Coiba, about an hour’s boat ride southwest of town. From 1919 it was the site of a federal penitentiary—like a Panamanian Alcatraz. The island and the waters around it were off limits to all but the inmates and guards. As a result, both the rainforest on the island and the surrounding sea were left in untouched, pristine condition. The prison closed in 2004, and the area was protected as a national park and later honored as a UNESCO World Heritage site. It wasn’t long before the scuba divers discovered Isla de Coiba and the spectacular array of colorful fish that awaited them there.

Today Santa Catalina is a prime destination for scuba divers and snorkelers from all over the world who come to visit Isla de Coiba. It’s considered one of the top 10 dive sites world-wide. Among the surfing community, Santa Catalina has become a favorite, too, thanks to its good breaks, inexpensive accommodation, and year-round access. The big draw for anglers is the Hannibal Bank, a world-renowned fishing spot just west of Isla de Coiba, where marlin, sailfish, snapper, and tuna can all be caught. These three groups of water-sports enthusiasts keep coming back for more. And this sleepy little town has grown with them.

Kenny Myers was one of the first North Americans who came to Santa Catalina with his surfboard, back in the 1970s. He’s been coming back ever since. Now, along with partner Jon Hanna, he owns the Hotel Santa Catalina.

Kenny invested in the town because he loves the natural setting, the beach, and the surfing, and he wants to see it preserved for the future. “This is a very laidback place, secluded and ideal for surfers, divers, and fishermen,” he says. “If you come here, bring an open mind and an open heart to appreciate the natural beauty of the environment and the warmth of the people.”

These days Santa Catalina has a permanent population of around 400, including a hardy expat group numbering around 50. The town includes two grocery stores, a PADI Dive Center, a few surf shops, and scuba pros that offer tours. There’s no bank or ATM, no gas station, no medical facilities, and very few amenities. Those who live in Santa Catalina count on making regular trips to Sona or to Santiago for shopping, healthcare, business, banking, and entertainment. It’s about an hour to Sona, an agricultural town with grocery stores, pharmacies, and gas stations. Another hour gets you to Santiago, the capital of Veraguas Province. It’s a small city of about 46,000 and has all the stores and services you might need, including a new mall and medical center. While you don’t need to own a vehicle, it definitely makes these trips easier. In town everything is within walking distance, and bicycles are popular.

You will find plenty of options for places to stay and eat, as the town has a surprising variety of accommodation and restaurants. A few surf camps and hostels offer the basic fare; nicer digs can be found at the B&Bs, while a couple of hotels cater to more demanding clients. Locally owned eateries offer simple fare, such as rice and beans with roasted chicken or whole-fried fish with plantains, for a few dollars. The touristy spots serve up pizza, burgers, sandwiches, and some vegetarian meals for around $10. The hamburgers at Argentine-owned café Los Pibes are big enough for two to share, and the home-made cheesecake is divine. The newer, high-end restaurants present menus with seared tuna, lobster, or beef filet, with higher prices to match. But there’s a good variety of options.

Mike Shogren and Michelle Miller settled in Santa Catalina 10 years ago. Rugged and independent types, they met in Alaska before buying property with a shack on the main road into town. Now they own and operate La Buena Vida, a B&B with a café and gift shop.

“We really like the natural surroundings here and the fact that it’s undeveloped,” says Michelle. “We lived in Alaska before and we prefer an unspoiled environment, close to the water. Plus there’s a nice balance of international expats and the local residents.”

When asked what type of expat moves to the area, Michelle says, “The adventurous type…someone who can adapt and go with the flow. We’re part of a small expat community here, and we all know each other and help each other out. But you also have to be a member of the local community, to work together and know what’s going on, so it helps a lot to learn Spanish.”

Even with regular trips to Santiago, the cost of living in Santa Catalina is attractively low. Rental apartments and homes are available from $350 to $1,200 a month, depending on size and location. A two-bedroom, one-bath home within walking distance of the beach may rent for $500 a month, all in. Utilities are inexpensive, but you will probably want air conditioning, since it’s a coastal town. Daytime temperatures range from 75 F to 90 F, and the humidity can be high. At night it cools down to 65 F to 75 F. Internet is provided through cell phone services, and new towers have improved reliability. Figuring in monthly rent of $500, a couple can live comfortably on around $1,500 a month.

Santa Catalina doesn’t have a real estate office, so the best way to find property listings is by asking around. Existing homes include a new two-bedroom, two-bath house for $219,000 and smaller, older homes for under $100,000 that would need remodeling. Building lots are on offer starting at $40,000 and larger tracts outside town are available, including a 21-hectare (52-acre) parcel listed for $190,000. It’s a good idea to have your own well and storage tank to assure your water supply, and be prepared for occasional power outages.